By Chadwick R. Gore
The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing on October 12, 2005 to examine Egypt’s September 7, 2005 presidential election and its ongoing parliamentary elections. The presidential election was the first in Egyptian history to be open to opposition candidates, while the parliamentary elections are being held in three phases over a six- week period to be concluded in early December.
In the Egyptian presidential election, as was widely expected, incumbent President Hosni Mubarak of the National Democratic Party won a fifth consecutive six-year term with 88% of the vote. Out of numerous opposition candidates, the two main challengers, Ayman Nour of the Al-Ghad party and Noaman Gomaa of Al-Wafd, received 7.3% and 2.8% of the vote, respectively
While the elections were generally acknowledged to have fallen short of meeting international standards, it was broadly agreed that the vote represented a change in Egyptian politics. The nature of that change was, however, disputed by the panelists.
Consequently, much of the discussion at the briefing was critical of the government’s conduct of the elections, with claims that electoral reforms that had been undertaken in Egypt had not gone far enough.
“While the Egyptian elections did not meet internationally recognized standards of fairness, the mere fact that the regime allowed the opposition a place on the ballot had opened a doorway,” said U.S. Helsinki Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) in prepared remarks.
In a statement, Commission Co-Chair, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said, “The Egyptian people have tasted electoral freedom for the first time and began to debate the future of their country in a way that once was unthinkable. This is the beginning of a long process of democratic reform which over time will reverberate throughout the Arab world.”
Thomas Garrett of the International Republican Institute (IRI), who had observed the pre-election period and the elections as part of a 15-member observer delegation, remarked on the significant progress made by Egypt in allowing open elections. “For the first time in history, Egyptian voters were given the opportunity to choose from among several candidates for the position of president,” he said.
Garrett noted that one of the problems in the lead-up to the elections was that access to voter lists was not provided to opposition parties until two days before the election, making voter contact difficult for all but the incumbent. He was also concerned that apparent “off-the-cuff remarks” by members of the independent electoral commission regarding candidacies and party participation were given the force of law by virtue of the fact that such remarks could not be subjected to legal challenge.
These issues notwithstanding, Garrett commented that the election broke the historic taboo against citizens openly criticize their government in a way that had previously been unheard of in Egyptian politics. Overall, Garrett concluded, the aspirations of the voters were not subverted in that it was the clear intent of those who did vote to re-elect President Mubarak.
Khairi Abaza, visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and formerly of Egypt’s Wafd Party, the second major opposition party in the election, discussed the nature of the opposition. Abaza pointed out that although Mubarak received 88% of the vote, estimates are that only 15-23% of the 32 million registered voters participated in the election, meaning that Mubarak had the support of 6.5 million in a country of 72 million.
Abaza listed less-than-democratic aspects of the election, arguing that these had the impact of lowering voter turnout. These problems notwithstanding, Abaza noted that the public gains for the opposition were very important, allowing for the first time in 50 years a real civic debate about political reform and systemic change. He added that the lead-up to the election saw the growth of the opposition which, as a result, began to speak much more openly against the government. However, “there’s still a long way to go before we can see free and fair elections in Egypt,” he said. “What happened in Egypt is probably a step toward a freer system, but it could only be considered a step if it’s promptly followed by many other steps.”
Abaza also remarked that it because of its comparatively more solid national, social, and linguistic identity as well as parliamentary history, Egypt was well positioned to serve as an example for the region.
A Different Perspective
Somewhat in contrast to the prevailing view, Dr. Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace did not view the presidential election as representing an historic step or breakthrough. Hamzawy maintained that describing the election as historic was misleading, especially when taking into account the low voter turnout and the lack of serious competitors to Mubarak.
Rather, Hamzawy suggested, the election was simply the latest step forward in an ongoing reform of Egyptian politics that had gone on for the past 5 to10 years. He predicted that the impact of the irregularities suffered in the election would be minimized by judges who would play a greater role in monitoring the elections than had historically been the case. This, Hamzawy argued, would help restore the public’s belief in the neutrality of state institutions. Hamzawy also added that he believed that opposition parties would win 15-20% of the seats in the People’s Assembly in the parliamentary elections.
Counselor Wael Aboulmaged of the Embassy of Egypt noted that, as the vote was Egypt’s first experience with open presidential elections, it was perhaps inevitable that an assessment of their conduct would show them to have been deficient in various aspects. He added that Egyptians were only beginning to understand such facets of an election as campaigning nationally; how to raise funds; addressing people in different parts of the country who have different concerns; when to talk substance, when to talk style.
Aboulmaged further contended that voter apathy and low voter turnout in the elections was due to many citizens lacking faith in the process. However, he thought there was evidence of a new trend in which average people were becoming more involved politically and were beginning to feel that they have a real stake in electoral outcomes.
The Counselor made note of the election’s irregularities, but reminded the audience of the significance of the recent events:
“For the first time, an incumbent president in Egypt had to campaign nationwide to present his political, economic and social agenda for public scrutiny: to be held, in effect, accountable. This is something that presidents in Egypt simply did not do in the past. He had to ask for the trust of the voters.”
Commission Ranking Member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD) in a statement observed, “Nobody would mistake this election as free and unfettered. The opposition was fragmented, its main party excluded, and campaigning was tightly restricted. However, the sight of any public debate in the very heart of the Arab world’s most important state is the first crack in the façade of the old regime.”
Mr. Thomas Garrett, Director of Middle East and North Africa Program, International Republican Institute
Dr. Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Mr. Khairi Abaza, Past Cultural Secretary, Wafd Party; Visiting Fellow, The Washington Institute
Mr. Wael Aboulmagd, Counselor, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Mr. Chadwick R. Gore, Staff Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission
Helsinki Commission Intern Jennifer Ross contributed to this article.